Disease, Marriage and Board Games (Feature for Extra)

Matt Leacock doesn’t remember exactly how he got the idea for his board game.
“I was a new dad… you’re kind of in a haze when you’re short on sleep,” he tells EXTRA with a laugh. He does remember wanting to create a game that he could play with his wife. He had loved and invented board games since he was a kid and he wanted to share that love with her. It was a romantic idea that spurred this creation, which was odd considering it inspired a game called “Pandemic”.

This game concerns the outbreak of four deadly diseases in four locations across the world. The object of the game is to contain and eventually cure all four of these diseases before they become too big to control. The catch is that as the game goes on and the diseases get more widespread, the game becomes more challenging. Any bad turn may cause a chain reaction and the diseases can win. Luckily, the players of “Pandemic” are not alone. Every player can and must work together.

Matt is a real student of games and he was happy dig into what makes a great game great. He spent much of our interview talking about how to create and sustain challenge, variety and interest in board games.

Matt did not come up with the idea on his own. Besides his wife, whom he cites as his muse, Matt credits a number of other people whose testing and critiquing of his game sharpened and improved it. His wife and family were employed as game testers, but Matt didn’t stop there. He kept taking the game to new people with fresh eyes and perspectives.

One manufacturer said his pieces needed to “map” back to the actual players, and a color blind co-worker told him he couldn’t tell between red and green cities.

Suggestions like these led to changes big and small. Matt made pawns more like individual people with the addition of colors and roles specific to each player, and colors were changed from green and red to blue, yellow and black. Symbols were added so that the cities could be distinguished by two different mechanisms.

The game is designed to be as easy as possible to understand. There are games that are for gamers, people committed to the hobby or the practice of gaming. People like this play games that are often intimidating or inaccessible to the average person. Gamers, though, weren’t the only people Matt wanted to have play and enjoy this game.

“For a game to really come off the shelf for me it’s got to not only be playable with [hardcore gamers],” he says. “What I personally find most gratifying is being able to play it with my aunt, or uncle or my cousin or my nephew.”

For a game as challenging as “Pandemic” is, it’s also accessible. A player can understand the board, cards and pieces of the game without reading English. This was a point Matt emphasized during a speech he gave at Google. He talked about wanting to make sure the greatest number of people could enjoy the game, not just for altruistic reasons but also because the more people who could play the game the more likely it was to be a success.

In terms of the creative process, Matt emphasizes that his idea wasn’t ready right out of the gate.

“If you work too hard on the prototype you become married to it,” Matt says. Instead, he talks about having a strong goal and building toward it.
He collaborated with his family to create a cooperative game and his inspirations were multiple, but one place Matt’s game did not take its inspiration was video games. Matt resists the idea of a cooperative board game springing out of computer games. He is quick to point out that he was never interested in video games, neither from a design standpoint nor as a player.

“I am not a programmer, video games take large budgets and teams to get off the ground,” Matt said. “As a board game novice, I had only seen the idea of playing a game as a certain role in 386 computer classics like Oregon trail, and playing on the same team sounds to me like Mario and Luigi coming together to fight Bowser.” Still, there is actually an entire genre of board games dedicated to cooperation. As a true lover of board games, Matt was influenced by a non-digital world.

When asked why he picked a morbid topic like widespread disease to be the subject for his game, particularly one that he developed with his wife in mind, Matt says simply that it made a good enemy. In a collaborative game where players aren’t monopoly men competing to buy the best stuff or pawns trying to get home on a Parcheesi board, there needs to be something significant for players to beat. That something has to be scary enough to be a believable bad guy. When Matt plays the game with his wife, they are not playing against each other—they are playingto save the world. And that is a pretty romantic idea.

Pandemic and Matt Leacock’s other games can be found on his website: http://www.Leacock.com and in many game shops.

This article is available in Spanish here

About Casey Brazeal


2 Responses to “Disease, Marriage and Board Games (Feature for Extra)”
  1. Drew Scott says:

    Love the interview, Casey. My family is big on another Leacock game, Forbidden Island (sort of Pandemic Lite). As your article suggests, we love working together as a family to defeat the game and escape the sinking island alive; there’s not many better (or tense!) ways to spend an evening with your kids. (That includes my daughter, who started playing Forbidden Island with us when she was 6.)

    So a big ol’ Power Fist to you for spreading the gamers’ love of gaming, sir.

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